“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke, and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.” – Former President Barack Obam
“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
It’s ironic that I only become aware of the scarcity of grace in the world when I have a need. Today was one of those days. It’s rainy and cloudy, you can feel the cold front on the cusp of arriving. My daughter is home with a sprained ankle, and my son is filled with the energy that remains exclusive to nine-year-old boys. My wife hustles out the door for another morning in a series of morning meetings that are seemingly occurring with greater frequency. I find myself in one of those inexplicable foul moods.
The combination of factors prevents me from becoming fully focused this morning. In the drive-through at McDonald’s, I become the person I most loathe, unsure of what I want and scrambling to locate my cash when I get to the window. It’s not lost on me that if I was in one of the cars behind me, I would probably be tapping the dash and mumbling under my breath. I try to get situated as I pull out of the drive-through, but still can’t quite pull it together.
Thankfully, the cashier at the window is extremely patient with me, repeatedly reassuring me, “I get it” , he says.
The drivers surrounding me…not so much.
As they impatiently whip around me, shooting dirty looks in the process, I become acutely aware of what it feels like to be slightly off rhythm, unable to meet the standards demanded by fellow commuters. It is not a good feeling, and I silently vow to show others a little more grace, which, unfortunately, will probably go the route of a fox hole prayer once I regain my equilibrium. Made in a time of crisis, and quickly forgotten once extracted from current circumstances.
It wouldn’t hurt me, or any of us, to try and remember that vow though. We’ve all seen the popular meme that says to be kind because everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Tru dat.
In this Trumpian air, grace has become even scarcer. Gobbled up by the constant need to be right. Right in our politics, Right in how we conduct our personal lives. Right in the way things ought to be done. Anybody that does it different than us, is doing it wrong.
Lost in this need to be right, is the why. Why are people making the choices they make? Why are people supporting the things they do? Why are people behaving in the manner they do? Odds are there are explicable reasons for all their actions. We may not understand or agree with those reasons, or the conclusions they’ve led to, but it would behoove us to be a little more mindful and to extend a little more compassion. Grace, after all, shouldn’t be something we think of only when we are demanding it.
ANOTHER PRINCIPAL GONE
Oliver Middle School parents received a phone call at the beginning of this week from principal Dr. Erin Anderson informing them that she would be stepping down as principal. Anderson replaced popular principal Steve Shaffer 18 months ago when he became principal at Hillwood High School.
Following a popular principal is never an easy job, but Anderson seemed uniquely qualified for the task. In addition to being a well-respected educator and experienced principal, she’d also filled the role of an Oliver parent. Both of her children attended the school. School stakeholders were disappointed by Shaffer’s departure but in Anderson, they felt they had a viable alternative and as a result, her hire was met with a great deal of optimism.
Alas, it was not to be. Like most stories, this one is a complex one. In her call out Anderson referenced the death of her grandfather and health issues with both her and her father, as factors in her decision. My heart goes out to her, she certainly has a lot on her plate and I pray for positive outcomes for both her and her father.
In assessing her tenure though, it can not be omitted that over the last several months she had run afoul of teachers and the community. The year had started with a master schedule that was out of compliance and as a result, had to be adjusted after fall break. A move that was not well communicated and therefore increased stress throughout the building.
Throughout the year the school has suffered through a higher than normal teacher attrition rate. Oliver tends to be a school where teachers stay for a long time. When a popular math teacher, who had been there 13 years, left earlier this month, it was like the proverbial breaking of the damn. Teachers refused to remain silent and openly questioned the building’s leader.
I don’t pretend to fully understand the reasons for the inability of Dr. Anderson and the staff to align, but I don’t doubt the validity of the dissatisfaction. For whatever reason, Dr. Anderson had become a leader sans the ability to lead. This should be a reminder to everyone that there are no “easy” principal jobs.
Oliver falls under the category of what we refer to as a “good school”. The band program is unrivaled in the state if not the country. They have a robust Cambridge Program that provides heightened academic instruction for those students who meet the standards, and many do. The poverty rate is slightly above 30% and the school enjoys a high level of parental involvement. On paper, this school’s leadership should face a lot fewer challenges than leadership at other schools in Nashville. But there is always another side to the story.
The Tennessean recently ran an article exposing the high dollars that schools with robust PTA’s brought in and how this money further contributed to a greater divide among students across the city. The paper points out that Julia Green’s PTO contributes $218k to the school and Eakin’s PTO has raised $140k. They salaciously recite these figures but nowhere in the article does it mention what comes with the cash. It is left to the reader to assume that the money is just delivered with no strings attached. An assumption that would be patently false.
Nothing comes unattached. For many schools increased parental involvement is both a blessing and a curse. With higher donations come higher expectations. With greater parental involvement comes more people to satisfy and more people who feel justified in dictating how a school should be run. Keeping everybody relatively happy becomes a delicate balance, a balance, not all principals are capable of maintaining.
Making a change, even a necessary change, is a difficult proposition in a school with high parental involvement, because people are comfortable with the way things are currently done and feel a deep emotional attachment to the school as it is, not as the principal may envision it. New principals often fall into the trap of trying to enact their vision without sharing that vision and as a result, find stakeholders in opposition.
There is a saying in the restaurant business, “regulars will make you and they’ll break you.” Translated, it means that your regulars can be counted on for continually putting money in the cash register but change too much in order to serve more people, and they’ll cripple you by withdrawing their support. Schools aren’t much different.
I’m not sharing this to make excuses for anyone, but rather to remind everyone that being a professional educator is a hard job. There are no easy assignments in education. Let me say it again, so those in the back can hear, there are no easy jobs in education.
I’m hoping that things work out for Dr. Anderson. She is cited by many as a talented administrator – lord knows we don’t have enough of those – beloved by many. I’m obviously hoping things work out for the teachers at Oliver, they are among the best in the district and as such deserve a leader that can create some symmetry. It is my greatest hope that the district will give real consideration to promoting AP Hawaya Wilson to at least an interim-principal position.
Ms. Wilson is immensely respected and has a lengthy history with the school. Over that history, she has built up strong relationships with both teachers and the community. Relationships that will allow her to limit the amount of disruption the school feels for the remainder of the school year. Fellow AP Molly Sehring is herself a talented administrator but I would give a slight edge to Wilson. But we’ll see.
NAEP TIME AGAIN
Today results from the recently completed NAEP tests were released and per ChalkbeatTN,
The state’s fourth-graders recovered losses from two years ago in math and maintained their reading scores. Meanwhile, eighth-grade scores in both subjects were up slightly but statistically flat for a third straight testing year going back to 2015 under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP. The exam is given every two years to provide a snapshot of U.S. student achievement for the Nation’s Report Card.
I tend to not put too much stock in standardized test results, it’s one snapshot of one day in a student’s life. However, Tennessee’s department of education and its state politicians have long used NAEP results from 2011 to tout Tennessee as the fastest-growing state in the union. A claim that becomes harder to validate as we get further from 2011.
Luckily this year – NAEP is administered every 2 years – some of the other state’s students were kind enough to underperform this year. As a result of their under-performance, Tennessee was able to rise in the national rankings. We are now squarely in the middle tier instead of lurking around the lower-mid edges. Something I’m sure those supporting current education policies will tout as evidence that we are going in the right direction.
Other’s will leap on the flat scores as justification for revising educational practices. I suspect results will fuel calls to completely revise the way literacy is taught in Tennessee. Don’t expect any abatement in the recently re-ignited reading wars, nor be surprised when the scores are used as justification for recently enacted voucher legislation.
What won’t be widely talked about is the effect of poverty, discipline, and the growing teacher shortage, on educational outcomes. Riddle me this Batman, how can we expect children to excel when they increasingly find themselves in classrooms devoid of a qualified teacher? How can we expect students to excel when their classroom time is regularly negatively impacted due to repeated disruption by fellow student behavior?
Perhaps the path to success lies in solely teaching phonics on a digital platform. Everyone would learn to read, you wouldn’t need as many pesky teachers, and as a result discipline problems would dissipate. I know. I’m sorry. Sarcasm is not indicative of grace.
THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF CHOICE
Over in East Nashville, they had a meeting last night. The subject of that meeting was what to do about Lockeland Springs Elementary School. You didn’t know something needed to be done?
If you are not familiar with Lockeland Springs you might not know that it was recently honored as a national reward school. Normally this would be cause for celebration. But – per the TNDOE report card – the school is 91% white with a poverty rate of 4%. This is largely a byproduct of the rapid gentrification of East Nashville. It is also unacceptable for some.
Here’s something else to consider. Over here in South Nashville, we are used to elementary schools with enrollment numbers over 600. Lockeland Springs has 303 students. That makes a difference.
Last night’s meeting was about how to diversify the school. Not about replicating its outcomes, but about diversifying the school itself. A noble goal, one only has to look at my family’s educational choices as evidence of the value we put on diversity. But I’m not sure how I feel about this endeavor.
I must have missed the meeting on diversifying Tom Joy ES, because they have a Black and Hispanic population of 81% and an economically disadvantaged rate of 79%. Was there a meeting about Buena Vista Elementary School? After all, it is 96.4% Black and Hispanic students, with a poverty rate of 93.6%.
What about Napier Elementary School? Local council members love to tout the school’s academic growth numbers but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them mention that the school is 98.4% Black and Hispanic and the poverty rate is 94.9%. Would those kids not benefit from some additional diversity? I would say so, especially in the socio-economic category.
Once again, lost in this discussion is the impact of poverty. Napier has fantastic growth numbers, nothing against the hard and admirable work being done there, but their achievement numbers continue to lag way behind. It’s due to the impact of serving a high poverty demographic.
There is a perception that Lockeland kids are getting something special because of being white and on the wealthier end of things. I’d argue that it’s more what they are not getting. They are not getting classtime continually interrupted due to behavior issues from classmates brought on by trauma faced at home. They are not getting teachers who are continually in transition. They are not getting beset by hunger pangs while trying to learn and they are not falling asleep in class because they were kept up all night by the 3 siblings they share a room with.
There is nothing radically different being done at Lockeland Springs. There is no secret sauce that Lockeland students are getting that isn’t being shared with others. Some of the teachers at Lockeland maybe a little better than some of the teachers at the other schools, but I’d be willing to bet that there are also teachers at Napier, Buena Vista, and Tom Joy, that are better than the teachers at Lockeland.
Lockeland teachers have the benefit of serving kids that come to school fed, properly clothed for the weather, and rested. Their students benefit from involved parents who made a choice where to place their kids and most aren’t exposed to trauma regularly at home. It makes a difference.
Several years ago in South Nashville, there was an opportunity to build a new elementary school. With this opportunity was a chance to slightly redraw district lines in order to more equitably balance out student demographics. It would have relieved some schools from having to do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to economically disadvantaged kids and would have diversified all of the schools in the area, allowing for a more honest portrayal of academic performance.
Unfortunately, South Nashville didn’t have the stomach to redraw those district lines and I doubt that there will be a will to do so now in East Nashville. I also personally don’t believe that parents should be punished for making decisions based on the options the district provides. Parental choice means that at times parents will make choices that we don’t like, be that enrolling their children in charter schools or enrolling their children in schools that are not economically or racially diverse. You can’t defend one and not the other if you support parental choice. It’s one reason I’m not a proponent of parental choice.
I would think that energy would be better spent studying how Lockeland Springs has achieved the results they have. Unfortunately, that would mean confronting the ugly truth about the impact of poverty and the need to make societal changes. It would also mean confronting the myths that say anything is possible in America if we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It’s a conversation that I, unfortunately, don’t see happening any time soon. We as a society tend to be better at touting the need for honest conversations than we are in participating in them.
Earlier in the week, the state board of education overturned MNPS’s decision to close local charter operator Knowledge Academy’s three schools. While they acknowledged deep issues with the way the schools operated they didn’t feel any of the issues rose to the level of demanding immediate closure. They recommended that MNPS’s School Board revert back to their initial decision to place the schools on probation. So much for the sanctity of local authority and chalk up another loss for now-retired school board member Will Pinkston. Hopefully, potential clients of his new business endeavor are paying heed to his track record when it comes to advising on policy.
Speaking of Pinkston, despite his no longer holding a seat on the board, nor having a child in MNPS, he still apparently has a desire to influence district initiatives. Earlier in the week, he took to his favorite social media platform – much like our commander-in-chief – to blast MNPS’s potential hire for Communications Director. While I personally think that Braisted would be an upgrade at the position, I have to question why if Pinkston wanted to weigh in on district hiring practices, he didn’t serve out his term on the school board.
Speaking of school board seats, it looks like SIEU is upping their efforts to influence who will fill Pinkston’s now vacant seat. Metro Council will make that designation at the November 5th meeting and apparently SIEU plans to fly in the face of MNEA and current school board leadership’s preference of candidate Kevin Stacey. A choice they made without interviewing all of the potential candidates.
It’s worth noting here that the last District 7 candidate supported by SIEU was Will Pinkston. I recognize that I also endorsed Pinkston for the seat at the time. A decision I strongly regret. I urge those endorsing Kevin Stacey for the seat this go around, email their CM and let them know. Please be sure to place “endorsing Kevin Stacey” in the subject line,
Speaking of School Board seats, the cost of one in Denver continues to rise. It’s a week out from the election and spending on the school board race out west has risen to 1.5 million dollars. This does not bode well for next year’s Nashville race. Potential candidates better get their money printing press on line because I predict the coming race won’t be for the faint of heart.
In closing, let me give a shout out in appreciation to Nashville’s very own Vesia Hawkins. I struggled with how to write this shout out because we seldom agree and I’m sure I would have had several rebuttals last night, but that should not detract from what she accomplished. She packed a room on a Tuesday night – that was unusually stacked with competing events – and got people talking about literacy. Well done, props to you, and much admiration.
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Oliver MS certainly has a GREAT band program, but to say they are “unrivaled” in this city, state, etc. is a bit of a stretch.
This said, the struggles that school has gone through in the last few months are very real, and similar situations are going on all over Nashville. It’s a sad state of affairs, though one that could be improved with improving policy implementation, communication, and a horrifically inept HR department down at Bransford Ave.